Hell on Wheels: Durant, Nebraska

If the first couple of episodes are any indication, season two of Hell on Wheels is going to have a lot going for it. These were two of the best episodes of the series, thus far, well-paced, with plenty of action, and a lot of character interaction that builds on what we know previously about a variety of characters. Mr. Durant finds himself in dire straits; the Nebraska town he established (and modestly named after himself) is attacked by a Sioux war party and burned to the ground. The Sioux, it seems, may give him more trouble in season two than the Cheyenne did in season one. At this point, the Sioux remain at a distance as a potentially dangerous threat. We know, at least, that they have a motive—Durant plans to ignore his previous engineer’s advice to avoid building the railway through Sioux sacred grounds. Hopefully, the series will develop individual Sioux characters as the season progresses.

Bohannon has been captured in the midst of a train robbery and taken to a federal prison, where he awaits execution.  Fortunately for him, the Sioux attack makes Durant realize that he really needs Bohannon back on his payroll. Neither man is particularly happy about that, but Durant arranges to get Bohannon released from prison. “Sometimes,” Durant tells him, “you have to make a bargain with the devil.” “Which one of us,” Bohannon comments, “is the devil in the bargain.” That seems like it might be a developing theme for this season. Which one, indeed, is the devil in the bargain? That’s a hard question to answer.

That also seems to play out in the relationship between Bohannon and Elam. The two characters certainly mirror one another in multiple ways, as suggested when they finally encounter one another again at the Hell on Wheels camp. They just stand and look at one another, their stances and responses doubling one another. Which one is the devil in that relationship? Certainly, Elam takes up the cause of justice in the camp, tracking down the man who killed a prostitute in the earlier episode, but his motives are hardly pure. He accepts cash from Lily to do so, but, more to the point, he only agrees to “punish” the man when Lily reveals that Eva is the one who directed her toward him. Yes, with Durant burned down, Eva is back in the Hell on Wheels camp. At the end of last season, Elam made his own bargain with the devil, choosing to take Durant’s job offer rather than marrying Eva and settling down. As he looks longingly at the now married Eva throughout the episode (and he kills for her, or, at her direction), maybe he’s wondering about whether or not he got the better end of the bargain after all. And with her respectable family life in an actual town now ended since the town is no longer there, perhaps Eva is having some doubts of her own.

Mr. Gundersen (no longer “The Swede,” really, as he is no longer the  much-feared overseer of the camp) is also a character who is developing in interesting ways. Driving around a wagon loaded with waste (and the stray dead body or two), if he is not someone who has made his own bargain with the devil, he certainly looks like the guy that can ferry you across the River Styx. A scene between Gundersen and Rev Cole, in which Gundersen stands in front of a roaring fire as the two talk enthusiastically about the end of the world, certainly suggests Gundersen’s affiliation with hell. His costuming this season is fantastic. Wearing a coonskin cap and tattered black clothing, he looks like a combination of a Norwegian Davy Crockett and the world’s seediest undertaker.

Joseph Black Moon has perhaps made his own bargain with the devil, choosing his faith over his people, only to have his faith challenged by the man he placed it in—Rev. Cole, who continues to drink and drink and drink.

Lily Bell seems to have found her way into Durant’s bed, to which I can only say two things: Yuk! and Huh? I’m not quite sure how that happened, especially given her obvious disgust for him. I may have missed something at the end of the last season, but I didn’t see this development coming. The show continues to have trouble with developing female characters. Lily seems to do things because it’s convenient to the plot that she does so. I’m not sure where we’re heading here, but, of all the various bargains with the various devils, Lily may have made the worst deal of all.


2 Responses to “Hell on Wheels: Durant, Nebraska”

  1. billyriel1971 Says:

    A good thematic review of the second season to date, Michael. I thought the second episode was very strong – specifically the ending scene and its use of the 1930 Blind Willie Johnson tune, “Soul of a Man” (sung by David Lindley).

    I will say that I found myself wanting more time given to Cullen with the outlaw Confederate gang….there were some interesting dynamics and an intriguing backstory there. With Durant securing a pardon for Bohannon for his crimes, it will be interesting to see if Cullen will have to defend the railway against his Confederate brothers-in-arms. I thought Anson Mount was quite effective in portraying how Cullen negotiated the outlaw lifestyle with his own moral code – a code that was challenged at times by his own personal history (e.g. the reasons for his beat-down of the Union soldiers).

    Chad Beharriell

  2. Michael K. Johnson Says:

    Yes, that’s true about the outlaw gang—would be interesting. I’m not sure if anyone other than Bohannon was taken to the prison, so they may still be around for a possible return later in the season—especially Bohannon’s friend, the older man who tried to tell him to skip the final robbery. Not only was Anson Mount’s performance strong, but his hair and beard design in these two episodes was brilliantly done. Sometimes in season one, the make up was a little cheesy, but his hair and beard looked lived in, and hard living at that.

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